Young voters' fashion sense often leads the polls

While the nation watches who's ahead in the Democratic race, Marc Cowlin is keeping an eye on which candidate is ahead in online sales of boxer shorts and T-shirts.

Cowlin is a spokesman for, one of the many online companies selling campaign garb. (For the record, Hillary Rodham Clinton is leading in sales of men's boxer shorts at CafePress, while Barack Obama has the lead in thong sales.)

With slogans like "Barack the Vote," "A Woman's Place is in the White House" and "The Mac is Back," online stores like CafePress have seen steady sales of campaign-related merchandise, mostly from the young people they cater to.

And with each passing primary, the sales of campaign clothing have changed to reflect a candidate's popularity — or lack thereof.

"I think (young people's) attention spans are pretty short," said David Beitzel, 26, a student at Harrisburg Area Community College in Harrisburg, Pa. His vote is for Obama, but he isn't sure who he thinks has the most eye-catching stuff.

"Each side has made its case and now they're just repeating it. How is humor affecting politics? I'm waiting to see how nasty it gets," he said.

CafePress allows users to design T-shirts and other items like baby bibs. About 20 percent of its sales come from campaign merchandise, Cowlin said.

Embracing the interactivity of modern media, CafePress lets customers submit designs for everything from shirts to hats to underwear. It has received more than 1.2 million designs for Obama products, while those for Clinton and John McCain combined barely break 1 million.

"We started seeing people uploading designs for the campaign long before the candidates were even decided," Cowlin said. "We started to notice most of the major traffic and interest right before the primaries." Even before the analysts, "We knew who the front-runners were going to be."

Some sites selling political garb often can tell which way the wind is blowing for an entire political party. Two sites, for Democrats and for Republicans, launched simultaneously in January and saw a response almost instantly.

William Rhamey is electronic marketing director for Powertex Group, which runs both sites. "Since we're doing both sides of the political spectrum, the donkey store seems to sell a lot more, but the elephant store gets a lot more feedback. We get a lot of negative e-mails about it," he said.

Other companies have seen similar ups and downs in their sales for particular candidates. At, the same team that brought the now-famous "Obama Girl," founder Ben Relles stopped selling T-shirts with likely Republican nominee McCain on them.

"People weren't buying it," Relles said.

McCain has sometimes been criticized for not courting young voters, but Clinton and Obama, who have a larger youth base, have seen their merchandise fluctuate as the race winds on.

"The Obama stuff picks up when he does really well. After big wins or big events we start to see more sales," Relles said. "People pick the candidates based on who's leading in the polls."

That seems to be the case on some college campuses.

"People think it's cool to be a Democrat or to vote for Obama," said Stacie Barton, 22, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "A lot of my (classmates) who don't pay attention to politics just stick with whoever is popular. The people who are not political just ask, 'Who are you voting for and why? All right. That's my guy.'"

Barton said she knew long before the campaign who she'd be voting for — she had helped work on Obama's bid for senator. But she's seen others vote for more superficial reasons, like based on what they see on 'The Daily Show' or 'The Colbert Report.'

"Young people can be a very impressionable and sometimes naive demographic," said Matthew Segal, a senior at Kenyon College in Ohio and the executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment.

However, some trends have remained true: Obama merchandise is generally outselling that of the other candidates and has been for some time.

But do T-shirt sales equal a victory?

Not necessarily.

Ron Paul was a front-runner in sales for a while at Super Tuesday came around and the Republican candidate dropped from the top campaign merchandise spot, said Cowlin of CafePress.

"I care more about the actual message that the candidates have, not about who has the best T-shirt (design)," said Bernadette Karandy, 20, a George Washington University student who plans to vote in the general election and is leaning toward Obama. "What happens in the primaries doesn't affect me much. I've seen people who care more about who celebrities are voting for. Some people go to PerezHilton and say 'Perez likes this candidate, so I like this candidate.' It's ridiculous."

Alyssa Smaldino, 18, another GW student, said, "What I'm influenced by is watching the candidates on TV and seeing what they say. I wouldn't vote based on a T-shirt." Most of my friends who are going to vote will vote for the right reasons, not because of a T-shirt."

Funny phrases on T-shirts or underwear may not be the best way to drum up support for a candidate.

"It used to be protests and flowers and concerts. Now it's T-shirts and blogs and social-networking," said Rhamey of the donkey and elephant stores. "Which is more powerful over the years? If you look at the overall trend of where we're going, you wonder if the old methods were more effective."